American artist John Wurdeman is recognized around the world for his paintings and his influential Georgian natural winery, Pheasant’s Tears. His story winds back to when he was 16 years old and became enamored with the region’s polyphonic folk songs.
After studying art in Moscow, he came to Georgia. Now, he promotes ancient Georgian wine tirelessly through the winery and his local restaurants, along with his wife, Ketevan Mindorashvili, who is a polyphonic musician and chef, as well as winemaker and business partner Gela Patalishvili.
What’s the relationship between Georgian wine, food and music?
When we started Pheasant’s Tears Winery and the restaurants, we looked at wine and cuisine as an extension of our ethnographic work. Ketevan was collecting traditional Georgian polyphonic songs, and my paintings [of local scenes] were financing the projects.
Georgian wines form a profound part of life here, and folks use it to celebrate even the ordinary. We have the tradition of the grand toastmasters and the supra [feasts]: Folk music and wine go hand-in-hand with food, a continuation of a very ancient tradition.
“If we are concerned about the provenance of the food we eat…why not apply this ethos to our beverages?”
What draws you to Georgia?
It’s an ancient culture that’s still alive in spite of great periods of loss. We have an open society that is evolving, taking the wisdom of the past forward with creativity. To share these experiences with visitors, we created a specialized tour company, Living Roots, that delves into the history, winemaking and gastronomy still thriving in the countryside.
What do qvevri—terra cotta amphorae that traditionally were buried underground and used to make, age and store wine—mean to traditional Georgian winemaking culture?
When I met Gela, an eighth-generation winemaker from a farming family, in 2006, he was on a passionate quest to restore what was lost during the Soviet rule…The qvevri method was replaced by stainless steel and plastic barrels. Birds, snakes and bees were disappearing because of the rampant use of pesticides. We were fast losing the art of qvevri-making, too.
Qvevri wines showcase the elegance of the world’s oldest winemaking culture in a way where nature remains in control of the process.
Why do you advocate for natural wines?
Natural winemaking is simply a return to healthier farming and cellar practices before industrialization took place. If we are concerned about the provenance of the food we eat—how it’s treated, grown and harvested—then why not apply this ethos to our beverages?
Ishay Govender-Ypma is an ex-lawyer, freelance journalist, cookbook and guidebook author. Her work appears in local and international publications like National Geographic, Saveur, The National UAE, Food & Wine and Literary Hub. www.ishaygovender.com; @IshayGovender